Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Eiffel's Tower

Even though Jill Jonnes titled her work Eiffel’s Tower, the building of the huge iconic Paris structure is only part of this historical look at the 1889 “Exposition Universelle.”

This work also highlights such historical figures as James Gordon Bennett, Jr. of The New York Herald, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, the painters Whistler, Gauguin, and van Gogh, as well as Thomas Edison. 

Using the 1889 Exposition as background, Jonnas delves into the lives of some of the “characters” of the Gilded Age, an age that propelled enterprise and invention.

Gustave Eiffel, a builder of railroad bridges, bid [and won] the contract to erect a signature piece of sculptor to greet the visitors to the 1889 fair and wished to showcase that the French are very much a part of the emerging technological advances of the nineteenth century. Amid much controversy and criticism of this iron monstrosity, Eiffel persevered and assembled, with his two hundred workers, some of which made four cents an hour, “18,038 pieces of wrought iron with two and a half million rivets to create the world’s tallest building.”

The sheer enormity of what these men did boggled the imagination, or at least mine. Sometimes in 0 degree weather, sometimes in high winds, Eiffel’s workers clanged, banged, and chained each part of the “iron skeleton” [which rose] “to dominate the Parisian skyline.” The “sheer physical effort, the necessary precision, the relentless pace, as well as the care” involved in the construction of the 7,300 ton structure led Eiffel to immortalize these men with a plaque on the tower with all of their names.

That was the least he should have done. Seriously.

Equally interesting were the shenanigans of the painters of the day -- whether jealous of what works hung in the many exhibits {Whistler} of the fair or exhibiting early stages of the madness that would eventually kill them {van Goghs} -- the goings-on of these guys had the aura of soap opera.

Edison, the wizard of Menlo Park, knew that the fair would be the best place to “sell” his newest invention -- the phonograph;  Buffalo Bill, the most popular act of the time, lauded about Paris like a king with his troops of twenty buffalo, two hundred horses, and one hundred Indians, many who were Sioux chiefs, and James Gordon Bennett, Jr., an enormously wealthy figure in his own right, made money hand over fist selling his newspaper to the throngs delirious to knowing about it all.

Jonnes carefully weaves these historical figures, the tower, and the era into a well crafted and readable work about a time long ago with perhaps the most recognized landmark in the world at its center.

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